Water Tower: Chestnut Hill Water Tower — From Supplying Water to Connecting Community
Walking by this recreational center today, you can see community members of all ages. Young and old alike gather here to take classes, play sports, celebrate, and meet with neighbors. With activities so focused on the recreation center and surrounding fields, one almost forgets entirely about the huge tower located on the same grounds. But less than 200 years ago, it was this tower, not a recreation center that was the core of the community.
Located at the intersection of Hartwell Lane and Ardleigh Street in Chestnut Hill, the 125 foot tall water tower for many years was the area’s main water source. Built in 1859 of local stones, this tower was a part of the Chestnut Hill Water Works. It was run by Charles Heebner, and supplied water to Chestnut Hill as well as neighboring Springfield Township. The tower has a standpipe in the center, around which a staircase spirals to the top. A wooden tank once crowned the top of the tower, where the water was actually stored.
Water came from a local well and spring. The well had a capacity of 100,000 gallons and supplied 80,000 gallons to the area. The springs, however, had a 5,000,000 gallon capacity, from which they supplied 350,000 gallons. The Chestnut Hill Water Works built a reservoir nearby to increase the stored capacity to 6, 316,000 gallons. The tank at the top of the tower could hold 40,000 gallons.
With the onset of the Civil War, this tower became even more crucial to the area. In 1863, less than a mile away from the tower, Mower Military Hospital was constructed to treat wounded soldiers. The hospital opened on January 3, 1863, and over the course of that year served 6,034 patients. The tower supplied Mower with water, which was crucial not only for drinking and washing, but also for fire prevention and sanitation.
. However, as the Civil War came to a close, Mower closed and was later demolished. Eight years later, the Philadelphia Water Department took possession of the Chestnut Hill Water Works. In 1875, the springs supplying the reservoir and tower failed. Water had to be re-routed from neighboring Mt. Airy and Roxborough. By 1904, the Chestnut Hill reservoir was completely abandoned, and the tower began to fall into disrepair. In 1910, the Chestnut Hill Water Works was completely dismantled, and the buildings and grounds were transformed into playgrounds.
The tower, however, still stood. The city had allowed the wooden tank to rot- and the stone walls to slowly fall to ruin. A 1914 newspaper article discussed a motion to remove it. Those in favor pointed out that the tower was “dilapidated” and in “dangerous condition.” The city was not likely to pay to repair it.
Despite these motions, the tower remained. In 1919, a recreation center was built on the former site of the pumping station next to the tower. As of 2015, the two-story building still stands, along with its numerous sports fields and courts.
In 1949 the tower itself was finally renovated, the tank removed, and the entrance sealed shut. A plaque on the tower reads “Restored in 1949 in memory of Samuel Y. Heebner, son of Charles Heebner, president of the Chestnut Hill Water Company, under whose direction this tower was erected”.
As of 2015, the two-story building still stands, along with its numerous sports fields and courts. The recreation center offers a variety of classes and activities for children of all ages including gymnastics, baseball, softball, basketball, karate, and even zumba. It is also used for community events and gatherings, as well as holiday celebrations. On any given day you can see people of all ages and backgrounds coming in and out of the building, greeting friends and neighbors along the way.
This site may have gone through a drastic transformation, but its central role in the community is a constant. While the Water Tower was once a vital source of water, it is now bringing people together.
- Contosta, David R. Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1850-1990. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1992. Print.
- Carter, Joseph. "Landmarks of History." The Herald [Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia] 4 Aug. 1955: n. pag. Print.
- Gibson, Jane Mork. "Chestnut Hill Water Tower." Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press, 1990. Web. June 2015.
- Lippincott, Horace Mather. A Narrative of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia with Some Account of Springfield, Whitemarsh and Cheltenham Townships in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Jenkintown, PA: Old York Road Pub., 1948. Print.
- United States Army Mower General Hospital. Rules and Special Orders of the Mower United States Army General Hospital at Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1865. Print